Middle East update: August 8 2018


The Defense Intelligence Agency apparently believes there are a lot more ISIS fighters remaining in Syria than the US government has previously been willing to let on. A new inspector general report, citing the DIA, says that some 4000-6000 ISIS fighters remain in northeastern Syria, a far cry more than the 2000 the Pentagon has been talking about. The DIA further estimates that there may be 13,100 to 14,500 ISIS fighters spread out over the rest of Syria. And while I wouldn’t treat the DIA’s estimates as fact, I would assume that they’re going to inform Washington’s approach to Syria–which means, for example, that you can forget about the anti-ISIS air war (see below) ending anytime soon.

A group of international NGOs affiliated with the United Nations warned on Wednesday that a Syrian government assault on Idlib province is likely to create at least 700,000 new refugees. While that number would be a massive crisis, it sounds awfully low to me given that the population of Idlib is now believed to be somewhere in the 2.5 million to 3.5 million range and it’s probably safe to say that most of those are civilians.

Inside Idlib, and in the rebel-controlled areas surrounding it, rebel groups are reportedly rounding up anyone caught suggesting that maybe it would be better to negotiate with Damascus than to fight. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham arrested “dozens” of people last week, ostensibly because they were plotting to hand rebel fighters over to Russia.

While Russia’s client, Bashar al-Assad, mulls over the idea of creating new Syrian refugees, Moscow is trying to get into the business of sending them back home. The Russians are trying to resettle as many as 1.7 million refugees they’ve identified as willing to return home, but say they’re running into resistance when they try to work with Western interests about rebuilding Syria so that conditions are suitable for the refugees to return.


Yemen’s Houthi rebels say they fired off another missile at the southern Saudi city of Jizan on Wednesday. Saudi state media says its military intercepted the missile before it reached its target.


That Turkish diplomatic delegation arrived in DC on Wednesday to meet with State and Treasury Department officials regarding the ongoing US-Turkey spat over US pastor Andrew Brunson. Reuters is suggesting that the State Department talks went pretty much nowhere, but the Treasury meeting is still to come as I’m writing this. The Turks are hoping to get Treasury to go easy on Turkey’s Halkbank, which is in line for sanctions over charges that it enabled Iranian sanctions-busting a few years back. Ankara’s announcement earlier in the day that it plans to continue buying Iranian natural gas despite the reimposition of those sanctions probably isn’t helping to brighten the tenor of these talks.


Airwars’ Oliver Imhof tallies up the cost of the US-led coalition’s air war against ISIS:

The conflict – which has drawn 14 international powers into a major fighting alliance since August 8th 2014 – has seen almost 30,000 Coalition air and artillery strikes and more than 108,000 munitions dropped from the air on ISIS forces. Those combat partners known to be still active are the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands.

International airpower has played a huge role in defeating ISIS. The first US airstrike took place near Erbil in Iraq, on August 8th 2014. Exactly 1,462 days of war later, and Washington’s intervention has now lasted longer than the American Civil War, and the US’s participation in both the First and Second World Wars.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding more than 1,000 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

Jan Kubis, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that the water shortage in southern Iraq is likely to worsen over the next several months. Things may get back enough to start displacing people from southern Iraq, not exactly something Iraq needs as it’s still trying to resettle people who were displaced by ISIS.


Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas’s #2 political leader in Gaza, and senior Israeli lawmaker Avi Dichter both told reporters on Wednesday that talks in Cairo on a ceasefire in Gaza are making significant progress and could be nearing an agreement. The two sides were still taking shots at one another on Wednesday though no casualties were reported. The agreement on offer seems to be a relatively limited one in which Hamas tamps things down in Gaza in return for the reopening of Gaza’s main commercial border crossing and a re-expansion of Gaza’s legal fishing zone by the Israelis. But there’s a promise of substantial economic aid for Gaza via the United Nations and Egypt, aid that might help stabilize Gaza in the long-term but that can only start flowing in if the violence stops.

Meanwhile, a few days ago Colombia became the 137th country to recognize Palestine as an independent state.

The Druze push against Israel’s new nation-state law is being led by Druze veterans of the Israeli military:

Anwar Saeb spent two decades in the Israeli military, rising to the rank of colonel and suffering wounds in battle while serving as a brigade commander during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Now, the 51-year-old lawyer, a member of Israel’s Arabic-speaking Druze minority, finds himself on the front lines of a different and unlikely battle — leading a campaign against a contentious new law that critics say sidelines minority groups.

Tens of thousands of Druze Israelis, along with Jewish supporters, thronged a Tel Aviv square on Saturday night in a rare demonstration against government policy by the typically muted community. Saeb and Amal Assad, a retired brigadier general, led the protest.


Robin Wright talks about what this increasingly absurd Saudi-Canada spat says about our friend Mohammad bin Salman:

The flap underscores the volatility—and potentially even the fragility—of the Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the youthful and increasingly autocratic leader enthusiastically embraced by President Trump as he has consolidated power since his surprise appointment, a year ago. At thirty-two, he is one of the youngest leaders in the Middle East. His ailing father, King Salman, has the final word, but bin Salman rules political, economic, military, and diplomatic affairs day to day. M.B.S., as he’s widely known, has been increasingly intolerant of criticism at home and—now—from major foreign powers, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., Pentagon and National Security Council staffer who is now at the Brookings Institution. “He is very thin-skinned,” Riedel told me.

President Trump’s support, and a personal connection to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, may have caused M.B.S. to feel that he has impunity to do as he pleases on the global stage. Trump’s first stop on his inaugural foreign trip as President was in Saudi Arabia, a visit orchestrated—with much fanfare—by the crown prince. Unlike the government in Canada, the Trump Administration has shied away from invoking human-rights issues with the Saudis, despite a graphic State Department report, released in April, detailing the sweeping scope of violations in the kingdom. The section on Saudi Arabia in the State Department’s 2017 Human Rights Report runs long—more than fifty pages. It cites the most significant abuses as torture; arbitrary arrest; unlawful killings; execution without requisite due process; restrictions on freedom of expression, religion, and peaceful assembly; trafficking in persons; violence and discrimination against women; criminalization of same-sex sexual activity; and the inability of its people to choose a government through free and fair elections.

Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi editor now in exile in Washington, said that the crown prince has already become more authoritarian than any of the previous six kings who have ruled since 1953, when Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, died. “Today he is in charge of Saudi Arabia. He thinks everyone should treat him as such,” Khashoggi told me.

The kingdom escalated the situation on Wednesday, pulling Saudi doctors and patients (!) out of Canadian hospitals, announcing that all Saudia flights to and from Canada will be suspended as of Monday, and announcing that it will stop buying Canadian grain. It’s refusing to go to couple’s counseling with Canada and says more punishments may be coming, no matter how much damage this whole thing is doing to the kingdom’s investment potential.

Russia is naturally siding with the Saudis because, hey, the Russian government doesn’t want anybody commenting on its human rights record, either. And the Trump administration is studiously staying out of it, even though when the subject of Iran’s lousy human rights record comes up the administration can’t condemn the Iranians fast enough.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday that his government will not stop pressing the Saudis on human rights. But before the Canadians dislocate their shoulders patting themselves on the back, Trudeau also volunteered that the Saudis have made progress on human rights, an obvious attempt at appeasement made all the more more obvious by the fact that the Saudis crucified an executed prisoner on the same day. Bending over backwards to fluff one of the most objectionable regimes on the planet over…what? The $1 billion in trade Canada does with the Saudis every year? Who gives a shit?


The Iranians may be taking their case against the United States to the UN, arguing that the reimposition of sanctions violates Security Council resolution 2231, which calls on UN members not to take any “actions that undermine implementation of commitments” made in the Iran nuclear deal.” This is only a PR campaign, because of course the US would block the Security Council from actually doing anything to enforce its own resolution.

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